The Sorcerers

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE SORCERERS

6/10

UK 1967 : Michael Reeves : 85-7 mins

Ice cream girls hurry into the aisles and sell off as quickly as possible. We notice about two dozen people we know spread out over the cinema in little groups smoking. The staff rush out. Lights out. It’s Boris, he’s discovered how to control a boy’s mind. The boy is pursuing a young chick singer through the graveyard. Boris’s evil wife wants the boy to murder the chick. Her forehead is vibrating to the grating music. Boris who is weaker wants to stop him doing it. Forehead thrust into the camera sending out the vibes. The boy is freaking and has the girl against the gravestone.

“SING!” he says to her. She is petrified and tries to escape, but he corners her. Boris’ wife back in their lab sending out the vibes to make him kill. Boris trying to counteract his wife’s stronger vibes. Foreheads pulsating. The boy saying “SING!”. Audience petrified. “SING!” Hands around her throat. Cinema silent. “SING!” She is turning blue. Foreheads vibrating. “SING!” Allen stands up: “Give me the moonlight, give me the girls, and leave the rest – to – me!” Cackling. Audience collapses.

Tom Pickard, “The Technicolour Teeth”, from Guttersnipe (City Lights, 1971) pp58-9

While Tom Pickard’s memoir of seeing The Sorcerers as part of a late-night horror double-bill may be hazy on detail (“the boy” attacks the “chick singer” in a Get Carter-ish back alley, not a graveyard), it does capture the film’s lurid but effective style. As with most movies set in or around ‘swinging London’, parts of The Sorcerers haven’t dated especially well. But the central ‘high-concept’ idea remains strong – Being John Malkovich is essentially a comic twist on the same premise.

Aged hypnotist Dr Nicholas Montserrat (Boris Karloff) invents a process that allows users to share the experiences of a third party – and to control the subject’s actions. Spurred on by his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey), Nicholas tries out his technique on a jaded young man-about-town, Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy). The delighted oldsters are then able to tap into Mike’s brain and ‘direct’ him whenever they choose – Mike experiences a series of blackouts, and “his” erratic behaviour disturbs his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy) and best pal Alan (Victor Henry). A battle of wills soon develops between the Montserrats over control of their conduit, and Nicholas’s benign, altruistic intentions are readily overpowered by Estelle’s quest for increasingly dangerous thrills.

Even within the traditions of the horror and sci-fi genres which it straddles, The Sorcerers isn’t exactly the most plausible of movies: not least because of the unlikely speed with which Mike agrees to Montserrat’s oddball request. Clearly operating under severe budgetary constraints (with a large chunk presumably taken by Karloff’s fee), Reeves doesn’t dwell on the practicalities of the Montserrat technique – psychedelic lights are shone ontoMike’s face while his ears (and ours) are assailed by spooky electronic music. And when the Montserrats want to ‘access’ their proxy, all they have to do is sit at their table and concentrate very hard.

Though emphatically a genre movie, The Sorcerers has some lofty ambitions – as indicated by that catchily pretentious though somewhat misleading title. Reeves and co-writer Tom Baker address the sixties ‘generation gap’ between the newly liberated, hedonistic young crowd and older folk appalled by – but secretly envious of – their energy and freedom. But there are other subtexts: at times it seems that the real subject is marital disharmony, and the film’s most powerful example of mind control isn’t the Montserrats’ hold on Mike, but Estelle’s chillingly exultant subjugation of her ‘brilliant’ husband’s will.

Their vicarious pursuits are routinely described by reviewers, meanwhile, as a metaphor for cinema itself, with the audience temporarily seeing through the eyes of others and experiencing the thrills absent from their mundane reality. This is a tempting interpretation, but, like the title, it doesn’t quite fit the movie. The fact the Montserrats ‘tune into’ their proxy from the comfort of their home suggests that television, not cinema, is the real parallel medium. The process is a ‘transmission’, not a projection: “I can hear music!” exclaims Estelle, “Even sound is transmitted.” The film’s audience can also hear music, and plenty of it: every scene features the distractingly prominent and cheesy score from composer Paul Ferris, who must have been paid by the note. There’s also a very liberal use of radiophonic sound effects – a loud heartbeat even fills the soundtrack at one point.

But The Sorcerers could hardly be accused of subtlety – Reeves isn’t afraid to let Lacey’s full-blooded performance veer towards hammy Lady Macbeth territory, and his camerawork features some heavy-handed in-and-out zooms at particularly fraught moments. But, as his subsequent, much more polished Witchfinder General proves, this is a director who thrives by pushing back the boundaries: Reeves’ films have a bracing, anything-goes quality that gives some scenes a real edge, as when the Montserrats incite Roscoe to viciously attack Alan while Nicole looks on in horror. The ‘happy ending’ is, as usual with Reeves, anything but – even when good does finally triumph over evil, it’s not much cause for celebration.

28th October, 2002
(seen on video, 26th October)

by Neil Young
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